September 12, 2017 Sujeev Shakya

Trenches to tunnels

Nepal Army needs to pay attention to planning, accountability and transparency in infrastructure building projects

A fortnight ago, an advertisement appeared in the newspapers for Expression of Interest (EOI) from the Nepal Army for the Kathmandu Tarai Fast Track Road Project  (KTFT). This is the first time that the Nepal Army is getting involved in a large infrastructure project. World Bank and Asian Development Bank, the two large multi-laterals that generally push the government on multiple terms and conditions for infrastructure projects, have both remained silent on this development. There are multiple questions that arise as Nepal Army takes on this project.

Questions galore
Who will hold the Nepal Army to account in terms of project details? Particularly considering the fact that the NA has never had to disclose their financials to the public before. What about Environmental Impact Assessments and other socio-economic impacts arising from the acquisition of land for the project? Who will such reports be submitted to, and who will hold the NA responsible if breaches are found? What about the process itself? In a country already lacking teeth in bringing everyone to justice, how will the military personnel and the army itself be brought to court should the need arise? Allegedly, every large project in Nepal has involved the kith and kin of politicians, or people who are known to be fronting politicians. How will the Nepal Army ensure that politicians or people close to them are kept at bay? What about the governance and accountability of such projects, how will Parliament ensure that they make the Nepal Army accountable? Are there any alternatives to the army? If a Chinese contractor wins the bid to build the road, will India be happy and let it happen? Or if an Indian firm wins the bid, will some Nepali nationalist leaders embark on an anti-India tirade and impact the project? After all, responsibility of this project was entrusted to the Nepal Army because anti-India nationalists were not happy that an Indian firm was going to build this project.

Since it is the first time that Nepal Army is embarking on such a big project, it is natural that many such questions are raised. These questions become all the more important because the Nepal Army has not given the impression that it abides by the rules. The glaring sight of haphazard construction in Tudhikhel, the central open landmass that acts as Kathmandu’s lungs, have made many question the intent of the Nepal Army. Running banquet halls in the heart of the city on national real estate does not really speak volumes about good governance and accountability. If they can dare to do such things in a prime real estate area of Kathmandu, no one is sure what will happen when the army starts its work on this project.

Army in business
It is not rare that a country’s army gets into business, but in Nepal so far, this has been avoided. Earlier, the loyalty of the Nepal Army was with the palace, when the Shah kings reigned Nepal. I still vividly remember then late King Birendra quashing an attempt by the Royal Nepal Army to open a company with the aim of investing in hydropower projects. Despite attempts made by many to drag the Nepal Army into business during the royal regimes, none of them were successful. Post 2006, the Nepal Army started to adjust to the antics of the members of the political syndicates. However, Nepal Army kept itself independent and when Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal tried to tinker with the army leadership, he ended up losing his job. It is alleged that the Indian blockade ended only after the Nepal Army chief worked with his counterpart in India. During natural disasters, the army did some of their best work by rescuing and rehabilitating people. In an era of selfish politics, it is only the Nepal Army that people have trust in to some degree.

Recalibrating thinking
The fact that the Nepal Army has agreed to take on this project seems to make it clear that they have a game plan for this, and we hope that this is true. Perhaps by ensuring that project related activities are conducted by a separate entity they can be made accountable in the public eye. This could also be a good way to test whether they can implement such projects. The insurgency period in Nepal ended more than a decade ago; the people who began the war have been well rewarded with power and wealth, so there should not be another similar insurgency in the immediate future. Therefore, we also need to question whether it makes sense for the Nepal Army to have such a large enlistment base. Perhaps the new entity that coordinates and manages project related activities could absorb a lot of the existing people in the Nepal Army and create a world class organisation that can deliver projects. With a success on the KTFT Project, this new entity could also have a hand in other projects in Nepal and beyond the borders as well. The world could potentially open up as a market.

However, it is going to be important to get it right the first time. If the Nepal Army does not take the issues of transparency and accountability seriously, the entire army will be dragged into controversy on other matters as well. Therefore, the prime importance for the Nepal Army leadership will be to plan before execution—this should be their forte. However, the sights in Tudhikhel do not give that impression; things have to undergo a great change if the KTFT Project is to be a success. I sincerely that hope I will be writing a column in five years talking about the success of the Nepal Army on this project rather than tweeting regularly on what went wrong.


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